Friday, September 23, 2005

Recordings: New CTL Next Week!

When I reviewed Cherish the Ladies's show at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival a while back, I raved about their new vocalist (and bodhrán player), Heidi Talbot. Unfortunately, the only CTL CD she's appeared on thus far has been On Christmas Night, and I've had a permanent nervous reaction to Christmas Carols due to overexposure to Muzak when I worked in a grocery store in high school (the drugs and therapy have helped quite a bit, thank you).

So it's wonderful to see that CTL has a new album, Woman of the House, due out 27 September which features Ms. Talbot and is Irish / Celtic music from start to finish. You can hear samples from every track on the album today on the linked Amazon page. It would probably be premature to call this the best CTL release ever before I can hear the entire CD instead of just excerpts from each track. But it's really good!

[It's a dollar cheaper to buy the CD directly from the record label, but the label really kills you on the shipping charge, whereas you can get free or cheap shipping from Amazon, depending on how much you buy. But take your pick.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Technique: Learning to Breathe

For me, learning how to breathe without breaking the rhythm of a tune is not easy. I've written about this before, but in the months since I wrote that post I've changed my conclusions.

Breathing as Ornamentation

I've explicitly discarded an assumption which I didn't write about at the time and might not even have been conscious of when I wrote the previous post. As a beginner, my instinct was to try and make breaths as inconspicuous as possible. The trouble with that notion is that "as inconspicuous as possible" is still pretty conspicuous!

I don't think there's any way to play a quick tune (or at least most tunes) in such a way that the listener can't tell when you breathe. Certainly, it isn't difficult for me to hear very good whistlers taking breaths when I listen to CDs. Circular breathing is for didgeridoos. So if we accept that there will always be an audible gap in the music when we breathe (unlike, say, the fiddle or the pipes), then instead of hiding the gap in the tune altogether we must make the gap appropriate for the tune. Turning lemons into lemonade, as it were. A well-placed gap for a breath, in other words, is an ornament, a variation in the tune which adds musical interest.

One good way to learn about using this form of ornamentation is to listen to recordings of Irish music on the flute. Flutes require a lot more air than (soprano) whistles, so the players have to breathe more. Hence, you have a lot more opportunities to listen for this in a flute passage.

There's an ornament I've always liked that I hear most prominently on flute recordings, but you can hear in whistle recordings as well, where a player shortens a note and skips one or two notes which follow. I'm embarassed to say that it didn't occur to me until recently that this was not merely done for style but that the player was breathing as well! In case it's not clear what I'm referring to, consider the following two score fragments:

Unornamented score fragmentScore fragment ornamented with emphasis on first note and gap for breath

The first score is an unornamented bit of a tune. Although notating ornamentations is an approximation at best, I've attempted to express in the second version what I'm hearing on the recordings — a note is shortened but emphasized, the following note is gone altogether, and then the tune picks up after a rest.

If you're following along at home, now would be a good time to put on your favorite Irish flute CD, as it will probably give you a better impression of what I'm discussing than my clunky notation above.

An Ornamentation Approach to Learning to Breathe

Well, it's all fine and good to assert that breathing is an ornament, but it doesn't make it any easier to do, does it? After all, I can choose not to practice rolls until I get the fundamental rhythm of a tune right, but I can't choose not to breathe. It's a difficult thing, biology.

But maybe it does help. Because it suggests that what I said I found helpful last time:

So here's something which may seem obvious to folks who have played for a while, but took me a bit to realize: You can continue to finger the note as usual even though you don't blow it while you breathe. This way you're not disrupting the normal movement of your fingers during the breath. profoundly wrong. There's a nugget of truth in what I wrote, I think: The reason I was losing the rhythm was that what was going through my head and what I was doing physically were different. But I picked the wrong solution. Instead of attempting to avoid changing what I was doing — and as I noted above, you can't avoid breathing — I should have been trying to change what I expected to play. I can play a tune better when I have an expressive version in my head.

It's not a magic bullet, though. I can do this well when I'm playing quite slowly, or if I practice breathing in a particular passage, but it's going to take some practice to be able to do it at will when playing quickly.


So the lengthy post above boils down to this:

  • I find it valuable to listen to good flutists on CD, and pay attention to their "breathing ornaments." I'm trying to get this ingrained in my head.
  • When I'm playing a tune and I need to breathe, I try and imagine the sound of the notes I'm about to play with this ornament. It make it easier to execute.
  • When I do this, I no longer get confused by not fingering the notes I drop. In fact, trying to finger them is confusing. It suggests I'm playing the tune mindfully instead of from muscle memory.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

WWW: Open Directory Tin Whistle Category

The Open Directory is a community effort to build the world's largest human-edited Web directory. The tin whistle category was pretty badly out of date, so I volunteered to edit it, and my application was accepted yesterday. I've just started working, and it will take me a while to get everything in order, but I have managed to go through the backlog of submissions and publish those which fit the category. (Note that if you're an instrument builder I've published your link in the Tin Whistle/Makers category and if you run a store then you should be listed in /Shopping/Music/Instruments/Winds/Tin Whistle/, which I don't control.)

But this is just a start. My goal is to build the most comprehensive index of tin whistle links on the Internet, and you can help! There are many sites I haven't had a chance to look up and add, and more I'm simply unaware of. Do you know of a whistle-related site not currently listed? General sites, links to instrument makers, tune lists, and performers are all fair game. Find the appropriate category and use the "suggest URL" link at the top of the page to let me know. I want to build a useful resource for the tin whistle community.

Note that it takes a few days after I've added a site for it to become visible to the public, so please have patience after you submit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Books: Last Night's Fun

Ciaran Carson is the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University Belfast, an author of several books of poetry and prose, and a winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. He's also a flutist and tin whistler, and, from the sound of things, has spent much of his life driving around Ireland and America, playing with sessions, picking up hitchhikers, and sampling the poteen. In Last Night's Fun he improvises around these ideas in a literary analogy to ornamenting a tune.

The book is a collection of essays, each named for a tune. The style ranges from poetry to prose to collage, from historical to hilarious, with a healthy dose of autobiography. Essays which don't consist in their entirety of extracts from works by other authors are frequently salted with lengthy quotes. The poetry is mostly Carson's own, but there are a few poems from John Loughran, and one from Séamus Ennis(!).

It is often observed that Irish music is a living tradition best learned and experienced live, but attempts to explain why this is so to the spectator not familiar with the experience often fall short. Last Night's Fun tests the limits of printed material in relating the experience of playing in a lively session, along with the music and lifestyle of the ITM community.

Here's an excerpt:

We were all apprentice Druids then, I think, led by the resident genius of Mick Hoy the fiddle-player. Stuck out in the starving wilderness, deprived of supermarkets, we'd improvise cuisine from sorrel, chickweed, nettles, mucshrooms and wild garlic, inspired by the arcane herbal forage-knowledge of Gary Hastings. Soup was made in a vast antique cast-iron stockpot, and in the morning you would find the aluminum ladle standing vertically in a green glue residue.
Time got out of mind as last night's fun embraced the next hungover morning and we staggered out again into the dawn of afternoon to hunt for wild herbs. We were oxymorons, children of the Sixties caught in a Celtic time warp where tunes were handed on by fairies or acquired in dreams: dimly sceptical of magic, we found ourselves surrounded by it, and the old tunes we learned from Mick became our conversation. Even the new tunes, like 'The Floating Crowbar' (I have heard it attributed to the fiddle-player Brendan McGlinchey), corresponded to a neo-Druidic sympathetic magic, where — so the story goes — the forged-steel murder weapon ditched in the river floated to the surface with the blood and hair of the victim still clotted to it. The reel took on the antique connotation of a Grimm's tale, with its talking horse's head that revealed the nub of the story in a cryptic rhyme. Mick would tell us tall tales....

Monday, September 12, 2005

Seisiún: Bardic Circle at Amore Restaurant

Bardic Circle session will play again at Amore Restaurant in Westerville, Ohio, from around 8:00 - 11:00 p.m. on Thursday 15 September 2005. Look at my previous post for directions.

You can come join the session, dance, listen, or just eat!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Tunes: The Galtee Hunt

This is my favorite hornpipe. I first heard it on Kells' excellent CD "SuR;" the liner notes describe it as a "very well-known hornpipe," but nobody in the Columbus, Ohio area seems to have heard of it. So I've made it my mission in life (well, in ITM anyway) to promote the tune.

Clannad have also recorded this tune; it's on Dulaman and some of their compilations. I like Kells' recording most, but Clannad's version is also good.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Shows: 2005 Dublin Irish Festival

Michael Burke sells his wares in the music vendors' tent.

This is an index to my other posts on the subject of the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

The Irish Festival is an incredible value. For $8 per day you get to see lots of great bands which would cost twice that individually. The only negative is the beer they serve (two Coors products); I can only conclude it's some sort of thinly-disguised anti-drunkenness campaign. So I was delighted to hear this song wafting out of the pub tent on Saturday....